Louie Sangalang, 40, arrived in Longyearbyen from the Philippines on Aug. 4 intending to travel much further north a few days later to run the North Pole Marathon, only to get a huge and expensive setback when the race was delayed at least a week, leaving him stuck in town. But during his first day here he visited the local supermarket where he was certain one of the women working there was from his homeland.
He greeted her in his native language and got a response, then met two more employees at the store soon afterward. They invited him to a party with more Filipinos, which led to playing basketball and doing other activities with even more.
“I was blown away because I didn’t realize there were so many Filipinos here,” he said.
A week after Sangalang’s arrival he got a full sense of the huge increase in local Filipino residents during the past few years when they hosted a first-ever evening celebrating their food and culture Tuesday night at Svalbard Church.
About 75 people, roughly divided evenly between Filipinos and mostly locals from other countries, begin the evening by indulging in a buffet of traditional stews, seafoods, sweets and other items, including some familiar-yet-totally-not dishes like spaghetti (with sliced hot dogs and a distinctive sweet sauce made with banana ketchup). That was followed by traditional dance performances by two couples and then two women as the rest of the Filipino community gathered behind them in song.
“We think it’s wonderful to have it here so others can taste our different foods and know of our culture,” said Edelyn Provido, an employee at Svalbardbutikken who moved here with her husband and children in 2011, whose contribution to the feast was a macaroni salad.
While Longyearbyen’s large Thai population is a well-known phenomenon, the large number of southeast Asian natives arriving from the Philippines (an archipelago that arguably puts Svalbard’s diversity claim to waste with 7,641 islands and 144 distinct ethno-linguistic groups) is a new and rapidly rising occurrence.
Beginning with a mere three Filipinos in 2001, there were 64 residents from the Philippines in Svalbard’s Norwegian settlements as of earlier this year, making them the third-largest non-Norwegian group behind Thailand (136) and Sweden (135), according to Statistics Norway. Almost all of the increase has occurred in recent years, with 15 Filipino residents in Svalbard in 2012 and about 30 at the beginning of 2016.
Among those first three Filipino residents in modern Longyearbyen was Lita Gamorot, 47, who said she was working on the mainland as an au pair before moving to Svalbard.
“After being an au pair it was difficult getting a visa,” she said. “Then we found out about this place where we didn’t need a visa.”
Unlike today’s diverse population with residents from more than 50 countries, Longyearbyen’s long-time status as a company town at the time meant the town was dominated by Norwegians working jobs related to coal mining.
“We were only three and a few Thais,” Gamordt said.
She stayed just one summer and moved back to her homeland, but returned to Norway in 2014. As before, she found herself moving to Longyearbyen in 2017 after her visa expired. She worked as a cook at The University of Svalbard until this spring and is now a fast-food cook at the Mix kiosk. For the celebration at the church, she made pancit palabok (thin rice noodles, shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, green onions and more).
Filipinos in other Nordic countries are also eyeing Svalbard as an attractive alternative to returning home, Provido said. She said difficulties in her homeland are why her family has chosen to stay here.
“We think this is a better place to live,” she said. “We’re here because we’re working and helping our families in the Philippines as well.”
While the Philippines have been frequently in the headlines the past couple of years due to the hard-core anti-crime policies of Rodrigo Duterte after he was elected president in 2016, the idea most local Filipinos are remaining in Svalbard because they want to avoid the situation at home seems absurd to Brandon John D. Gula, 35, who moved here five years ago with his girlfriend. The hotel worker, who made adobo (chicken and/or pork in a spicy sauce, often considered the national dish) for the feast, said he returns home every year for Christmas or another special occasion.
“I support my president,” Gula said. Among his reasons for remaining in Longyearbyen are “I think this is a place you can easily save money.”
Church leaders suggested the evening to the Filipino community, similar to an event in February celebrating Sami people’s national day, said Deacon Torunn Sørensen.
“We thought ‘what can we do next?'” she said.
Priest Leif Magne Helgesen said there are more groups in the community the church is hoping to reach out to after the frenetic summer tourism season.
While the food and activities might have been a novelty to Longyearbyen’s non-Filipoino population, Sangalang said it was a surprisingly authentic taste of home during his extended holiday far from home.
“I was just doing a video and telling my wife I wish she were here because she’s a fabulous Filipino cook and she ought to meet these people,” he said.